Hydroponic Gardening is an interesting method to grow your own vegetables.
I am writing this post for 2 very different reasons. The first one is to illustrate what really goes into hydroponics, how it works and how to avoid the errors I made while figuring it out. The second reason is to use my experience with hydroponics as a metaphor of how we learn, grow, and change through various perceptions of our experiences.
My first experience with hydroponics was from a system I purchased on ebay for about $100. Although it had all the necessary elements for growing plants in water, it did have its shortcomings.
This system was supposed to be a Nutrient Film Technique (NFT) which means the water and nutrient is pumped up to the top of the system and then it returns to the reservoir by gravity. So, you need a reservoir to hold the water and the pump, a timer to turn the pump on and off at regular intervals, nutrient solution to nourish the plants and the correct slope of each of the pipes so the water drains properly.
The idea is that a thin film of water and nutrient solution bathes the roots on a regular basis so they can absorb the nutrient and water as needed.
The PH needs to be monitored and must be in the range of 5.5 to 6.5 for the roots to be able to absorb the nutrients. Also, the system needs to drain completely into the reservoir, otherwise the roots will rot and the plants will die! I know that this happens because that's what my system did. There were flanges on the fittings at the end of each pipe and these flanges were tapered in such a way that the drainage was not good. Roots need air as much as they need water. If they sit in water too long, they rot. It is just like the situation where plants in dirt get too much rain. So, I learned 2 things from this initial system. I learned about improper drainage and I learned about the correct slope of the pipes. If I recall correctly, the pipes should slope downward towards the reservoir at a rate of 1 inch slope for 30" of pipe. This system as purchased did not have any way to facilitate this. I was going to re-build the system, but once I realized that the pipes were of non standard diameter, I decided to start from scratch.
My new system was designed with 3" PVC pipe, street elbows, heavy duty shelving purchased on CraigsList, and a custom built base to facilitate the proper "downhill" slope back into the reservoir. Yes, it did drain properly, but with success there can be problems too. I will explain that later. One more reason I am writing this blog is because I could not find a single book that covered the key basics of hydroponics so someone just starting out gains the knowledge that is necessary for success!
First of all I re-iterate that the system needs to drain properly. This means that the water pumped up through the system can drain properly so roots get a chance to air in between water cycles. I was running my pump 1 minute on and then 4 minutes off and this seemed to work well.
PH needs to be monitored and remain in the range of 5.5 to 6.5. If it is outside that range, the roots cannot absorb the nutrients necessary for proper growth. Several factors assist in proper PH management: 1) Use of water filtered by reverse osmosis, 2) Use of a buffered nutrient solution like General Hydroponics Flora Nova 3) Use products like PH up and PH down and monitor PH with a digital PH meter that has been properly calibrated.
So, the price of my homemade system did go up a bit as I eventually got tired of lugging 5 gallon jugs of filtered water and I just added my own RO system. I figure for around $500 one can put together a nice system. I bought a cheap drill press from Harbor Freight and had to get an expensive Forstner bit to cut the 2" diameter holes in the pipe.
This system worked great! The plants grew extremely fast and I was picking vegetables in a very short time. But, as I mentioned earlier, success has its problems. The plants grew so rapidly and the roots got huge! The roots of some of the plants got so large that they plugged up the 3" pipe and the system would not drain fast enough. Water over flowed and the reservoir started to run dry. So, I ended up pulling some plants out and others I trimmed the roots off, not knowing how it would affect the plant. It turns out that cutting the roots had no adverse effect and the plants did fine after the "root-cut"
One other thing I did to help my learning curve was to find a local hydroponics store and use them as a source of knowledge. I purchased some nutrient and other products from them and they were very helpful if I had questions or just needed advice on how to solve a problem.
I am glad that I decided to ditch the original system because the framework that held it up was already getting brittle and starting to fall apart. Although my initial system crashed and burned and I consider it a "failure", it was a great learning experience and helped me learn what "not to do" to succeed with hydroponics.
This next system was a great bargain! I picked up a Juice Plus Tower Garden for $5 at a rummage sale. It had all the components, but the reservoir was cracked. A quick and easy fiberglass repair kit made the reservoir use-able again and now I am experimenting with this system.
In summary for hydroponics to work well you need to make sure the plants get water on a regular basis. My Tower Plus system is set up so that a pump runs 15 minutes on, 15 minutes off, 24 x 7. The water is pumped to the top of the tower, then flows down to the reservoir, wetting the roots on the way down. With proper PH in the range of 5.5 to 6.5, the roots can absorb the nutrient needed for proper growth.
With proper drainage in between water cycles, the roots get the air they need to stay healthy and avoid "root rot" from excess moisture.
Follow the instructions on the nutrient bottle for proper amounts and adjust PH if necessary with sparing amounts of PH up or PH down.
I continue to learn with every system I use and I realize that problems will come up, but every problem solved is just more knowledge from experience that will insure long term success growing hydroponically!
Hindsight sure is 20/20! Here is a summary of things I learned from my experiments with hydroponics so far:
"If at first you don't succeed, try again until you do"
I was interested in hydroponics and I have to admit that I was somewhat frustrated with my poor results on the first system. However, I was so motivated because I really enjoy gardening that I made an effort to figure out why my system failed. Each failure was turned into a learning experience of what will not work. Once I learned about the PH and proper drainage I had the knowledge I needed to re-design the system or build a new one that works.
It was fun to design and build my own system and seeing it work the way it is supposed to is very satisfying. But other problems came up so I was reminded to be humble and realize that we always have room to learn and grow and the minute you think you know it all, will be when something goes wrong that you had no way to anticipate. In this case, my system was so successful that the roots blocked the water from draining. I think the metaphor here is that success will bring you a whole new set of problems and/or challenges, so it is best to remain humble! Enjoy your success, but don't think you are going to stay up on that pedestal and never have any challenges again.
I continue to enjoy hydroponic gardening as it is very rewarding, but I am also careful to monitor my system by checking PH, water level, timer, pump etc on a regular basis.
If you have any comments or questions, feel free to email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org